AUGUSTA, Ga. — In golf, there is no way to run out the clock. You can’t call timeout. You can’t bring in a relief pitcher. You’ve just got to keep going until you get the ball in the hole, even if it takes forever, which is how it felt to Ernie Els on Thursday. On the very first hole.
Els had a putt of three feet or so on the slick, sloping green yesterday, then he had a headache and a nightmare. He putted the ball past the hole, then back again, then again and again. He finally grew exasperated and resignedly, casually raked it to the hole from 11 inches. He missed that, too.
In all, he six-putted his first hole of the Masters, a par 4, and made 9. His week was over as quickly as it had begun. Although he gave it his best, he never felt comfortable over short putts again and finished with an 80 — and a stark reminder of how rough this game can be.
“I can’t explain it,” he said. Referring to the condition that golfers call the yips, he added, “A lot of people have stopped playing the game, you know. I couldn’t get the putter back. I was standing there. I’ve got a three-footer. I’ve made thousands of three-footers and I just couldn’t take it back.
“And then I just kind of lost count.”
He wasn’t the only one. The official Masters scorekeeping system had him down for a seven-putt 10, but a video showed he only took six putts.
If it were one of us playing at Eisenhower Park on a weekend, someone in our group would have mercifully said after one of the misfires, “That’s good,” which would have allowed us to pick up the ball, put a 7 on the scorecard and move along. Pros do not have that luxury.
“I tried to fight,” Els said. “I’m hitting the ball half decent and I can’t make it from two feet.”
Els is no hack. He has won four major championships and is a good man, to boot. He spends much of his time with the Els for Autism Foundation, which took root after his son Ben was diagnosed with Autism. The thing is, his golf nerves are 46 years old and funny things can happen at that stage.
That’s how old Tom Watson was when he five-putted the 16th green here. But this lost-in-the-forest feeling can strike at any time. Seve Ballesteros was significantly younger when he four-putted at the Masters. When he was asked to describe how such a horrible event happened, he said, “I miss, I miss, I miss, I make.”
The good news is, it is not the end of the world. Danny Lee was an 18-year-old amateur when his first Masters was ruined by a six-putt on the 10th green. “I was very disappointed about it, but Adam Scott and Trevor (Immelman) were just laughing at me,” Lee said. “I was like, ‘Seriously guys?’ ”
It did not stop Lee from becoming a successful pro. He won the PGA Tour’s Greenbriar Classic last year and Thursday he shot 4-under-par 68, tied for second place.
There is no telling where Els goes from here. Does he try a new putter? “Well, I couldn’t putt with a stick” he said. “You make some stuff up in your brain, you know, it’s difficult.
“I don’t know how I stayed out there. But you love the game and you’ve got to have respect for the tournament and so forth,” he said. “The last thing you want to do is do that on a golf course.”
If it makes him feel any better, he should know that a six-putt from three feet is also the last thing the rest of us want to watch.